In March 2020, the kingdom of Disney fans received perhaps the most awful news to ever come across the proverbial wire from The Walt Disney Company. As word spread, journalists from each media outlet had their own way of saying it.
CNN’s Frank Pollotta described the situation as “Disney’s tourism business coming to a halt,” while CBS’s Sophie Lewis was more straightforward, saying, “Disney is closing its parks in California, Florida, and Paris.”
The Closure Heard ‘Round the World
The Walt Disney Company shared news of the impending closures, stating that the decision was “in an abundance of caution and in the best interest of [their] guests and employees,” but regardless of the niceties and euphemisms with which the news was delivered, the message was the same: Disney’s U.S. and Parisian theme parks would close in response to the ever-spreading coronavirus pandemic.
The company’s Asian parks had already ceased operations, meaning that beginning on March 15, 2020, fans would find themselves living in a world in which Disney Parks seemingly didn’t exist–or at least it would feel that way–for the first time since July 16, 1955, the day before Disneyland Resort in California opened to the public for the first time.
It was, perhaps, the worst news any Disney Parks fan had ever heard. More than three years later, the parks are open and operational–and have been for a while, but another massive closure looms just over the horizon–the biggest closure since the pandemic, the ramifications of which the company might simply find too challenging to overcome.
Writers & Actors Go on Strike
On May 2, 2023, after a series of failed negotiation attempts and stalled talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike. On July 14, 2023, actors with the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) joined the strike, proudly supporting their writing counterparts and demonstrating in response to their unmet demands as well.
While the WGA and AMPTP finally came to a resolution in September, SAG-AFTRA members remain in the picket lines nearly four months after they first went on strike.
On Monday evening, talks between the AMPTP and SAG-AFTRA negotiators gave some semblance of progress as the actors’ guild achieved a victory related to members’ demands about the use of artificial intelligence (AI). But it’s too soon to tell whether that potential progress will come to fruition. Deadline reports that further negotiations are scheduled for late Tuesday in what could be a final step in securing an agreement between the two parties. On Monday evening,
“We are very close,” a SAG-AFTRA source revealed in an interview. “Not done yet, but very close with strong protection language in place [regarding AI].”
But even with Monday’s victory, there are no guarantees that the two parties will come to an agreement on Tuesday–or anytime soon–especially since recent attempts at negotiations have ended without resolution.
Fallout From the Strikes May Cost Disney the Company
Disney CEO Bob Iger has been at the table during talks with SAG-AFTRA negotiators alongside Warner Bros. Discovery’s David Zaslav, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, and NBCUniversal’s Donna Langley. Together, they comprise a quartet referred to by some as the “CEO Gang of Four.” CEOs from the four largest studios have attended the talks with their own goals, just as the actors’ representatives have done.
One of the biggest barriers to a resolution is the inability of negotiators and the “Gang of Four” to agree when it comes to the use of AI, which includes using an actor’s likeness in place of the actor himself. In recent weeks, actor Tom Hanks and actress Scarlett Johannson have had firsthand experience with the unauthorized use of their likenesses–something that is often addressed with litigation.
But to protect themselves from losing the rights to their own likenesses, actors in the guild are determined to have their demands met as they relate to AI.
But while actors have valid concerns about the use of AI to generate their likenesses, the inability of the parties to come to an agreement has allowed the strike to drag on–now for more than 116 days. And strikes are not without consequences–for everyone involved, and the fallout follows a fairly straightforward pattern.
Actors in the picket lines have gone without pay during the strike, just as writers did during the entirety of the WGA strike. When actors are on strike, studios have no actors to cast in their films. Studios without actors don’t make films. When no films are produced, no films make it to the box office, and when no films arrive at the box office, the studios lose millions.
But for Disney, the fallout could be far greater.
Walt Disney Animation Preps for Closure
The potential fallout for The Walt Disney Company extends beyond live-action films. No actors to act also means no actors to lend their voices to characters in animated television series and animated films.
In October, Jennifer Lee, Chief Creative Officer at Walt Disney Animation Studios, issued a stern warning–and a bit of a prophecy–about the effects of the ongoing actors’ strike on Disney’s animation division.
According to Lee, whose husband is a member of SAG-AFTRA, the continuation of the actors’ strike will ultimately mean Walt Disney Animation will cease to operate.
In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show, Disney’s Animation chief said that so far, she’s had the ability to “keep things going” at the studio. But the sun is reportedly setting on the time Lee has left, and she says that without a resolution between the AMPTP and SAG-AFTRA, Disney’s animated projects will become casualties of war–at least temporarily–as the department may be forced to completely halt operations.
“I can understand where everyone is coming from in terms of wanting fair wages,” Lee told the BBC. But she added that her division of the Mouse House–Walt Disney Animation Studios–has “probably until the end of the year” before the strike will finally force the department to close.
Lee’s warning came in early October, at which time she stressed the importance of a resolution “soon.” Nearly a month has passed with no resolution, meaning the potential for the closure of Walt Disney Animation Studios is more real now than ever, and by Lee’s own admission, with no resolution, the division will have to close sometime in December, as that would be the last month at the “end of the year.”
Jennifer Lee is best known for her work on Disney’s multi-billion-dollar blockbuster Frozen film franchise. Lee directed Frozen (2013), but she also wrote the story of the film, as well as the screenplay. She also lent her voice to Anna and Elsa’s mother, the Queen, in the story. She later reprised her director role in the sequel to the film, writing the story and screenplay for Frozen II as well.
As for the ongoing actors’ strike, Lee says she feels that “a fair deal” will be reached because “we’re all in it together,” but when the strike will end–as well as Walt Disney Animation’s last date of operations until a resolution is reached–is still only a few people’s very best guess.